Mara Zepeda

Serial Social Entrepreneur, Co-Founder of Cola Love & Zebras Unite

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South Carolina, USA


Mara Zepeda is a systempreneur and serial social entrepreneur. She is a co-founder of Cola Love, a catalytic community and economic development design studio in Columbia, South Carolina. She’s also an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Faber Center for Entrepreneurship within the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. In 2022, Mara was named an Omidyar Network Luminary.

Most recently, Mara co-founded and was the Founding Managing Director of Zebras Unite, an international and intersectional hybrid cooperative and non-profit creating a more ethical, inclusive, collaborative, and sustainable approach to building businesses. With her leadership and in cooperation with ZU’s 300+ members, Founding Members, boards, extraordinary worker owners and leadership, she helped grow the organization to a combined $3M in revenue and grant funding. She is now a Strategic Advisor.

Prior, Mara was the founder of Switchboard, a venture-backed software company that merged in 2019 with its sister company, Hearken. It was through her experience as an entrepreneur of a different stripe that led her to co-found Zebras Unite, along with Jennfier Brandel, Dr. Astrid Scholz, and Aniyia Williams. Their manifesto, “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break,” launched this timely, necessary, culture-shifting movement that has garnered broad recognition, from The New York Times to Nikkei. It now boasts an online community of 10K+ strong, hundreds of member-owners, and over 25 chapters around the world.

During her six years in Portland, Oregon, Mara was a co-founder and the founding board chair of Business for a Better Portland, a 350+ member next-generation business organization that forges public-private collaborations to advance systemic change, shared prosperity, and social justice and equity. She also co-founded and was the founding board chair of Xcelerate, a transformative community providing business support, education, peer mentorship, and funding to 200+ Oregon women entrepreneurs.

Mara is a renowned calligrapher with her studio Neither Snow, and was one of the early innovators in contemporary calligraphy. She was also an award-winning economic reporter for NPR, Marketplace, Planet Money, The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and ran a weekly column for The Philadelphia Weekly for three years.

Mara has spent her career at the intersection of community building, economic development, and systems change. Drawing on her experience as an artist, entrepreneur, and child of bohemian and spiritually curious artists, she regularly speaks about and leads workshops on education, trust, time management, social networks, the future of international business, and more esoteric topics like the sacred gift and lifelong journey of working in partnership and collaboration.

Mara holds a BA in Russian from Reed College and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University, where she graduated with honors. She grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, raised by a Honduran artist father and a cellist mother. Now based in Columbia, South Carolina, she and her husband, Dr. Andrew Berns, are part of a growing movement in the South dedicated to building beloved community.

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Mara gave a stellar presentation at WarmGun 2014. In conversations with other attendees, I was impressed how many others mentioned that her talk was a standout among a very stellar roster of speakers. Given the impact she had there, I invited her to speak at the SiliValley chapter of the professionals engaged in human-computer interaction. In front of a packed audience of designers, product managers, and more technically inclined developers, I was impressed (but not surprised) by how immediately Mara engaged the spectrum of diverse professionals. As I'd expected, her presentation was accessible, interesting, and full of interesting ideas. I've invited 100s of speakers to present to our group, and I'd place Mara in the top tier.

Paul Sas
Behavioral Economist, Speaker Coordinator for BayCHI

Mara gave a fantastic talk in front of a packed audience of women entrepreneurs at Portland's Women Founders Forum on "Sex and Startups." Her innovative, refreshing, and provocative perspective threw some new light on some of the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs. Mara is an independent thinker and was able to convey new ideas on some of the topics near and dear to this audience. She is amazing in how she connects with the audience and is able to engage people in an ongoing conversation, while at the same time touching on subjects that are simply not easy to cover in public speaking. The feedback from the group was superlative, quite frankly one of the best speakers we have ever had.

Paola Moretto
Founder, Portland Women's Founders Forum

"I love the way Mara engages with the audience. She has this unique ability to appear utterly at ease on stage, conversational, and eloquent. All while conveying ideas and concepts with strength and approachable simplicity. Whether in a large conference presentation or an intimate setting. Best of all, she never talks down to the crowd. She has a conversation with them."

Rick Turoczy
Founder, TechFest Northwest